Artists, poets, painters, writers, musicians- these people are not on a higher plane than anyone else. They aren’t any smarter or better people than anyone else. In fact, they’re oftentimes worse! But it is an artist’s job to try to explain the things we all feel as accurately as possible. That job doesn’t often pay very well and doesn’t come with benefits but it’s a job. Poets don’t feel joy or grief any deeper than folks who don’t write poetry, they can just sometimes find better words for how they feel. Take this bit of loveliness by the poet Jane Keynon, entitled “Otherwise.”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Oh man. And amen. She is just the best sometimes. That pinch that you feel inside your body when you read her words is like the first note of the first bird, a startling sound in the blue hour. Have you read her poems before? Do you know her story? It’s remarkable.
Banal stuff first: Jane Kenyon. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Grew up a Midwestern girl. Went to University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree. Got her masters from University of Michigan.
Not banal: While a student at University of Michigan, she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall.
If you didn’t know, this guy is a powerfully eloquent poet too. Check this out. It’s called “Affirmation.”
To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
Whoa. How crazy to turn that whole poem on a single word in the last line! So these two mortal, poetic souls fall in love. A professor with his student! How risqué! Especially considering that she was 19 years younger than him! Holy moly! And despite how the chancellors must have gossiped or how the faculty must have tittered, they were married in 1972.
They moved up to Donald’s family’s old place on Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire and wrote their hearts out. Jane wrote variations on Keats’ poem, “To Autumn” (in fact, she has often been compared to both Keats and Sylvia Plath), and translated the poet Anna Akhmatova from Russian to English. She also wrote four books of poems that are sharp as scythes and soft as cotton. Donald, for his part, wrote 13 books of poems, which won 14 or so prestigious prizes (you’ve never heard of) and became the Poet Laureate of the United States. Though Jane often struggled with depression, they made as happy a life as we humans can hope for and were, most likely, two of the most important American poets of the second half of the 20th century. Here’s how Donald put it in an interview.
“We rise shortly after 5. The coffee drips as I get the [Boston] Globe outside a nearby store. I bring Jane a cup in bed. We read the paper while we eat breakfast. First I work on poems, every day of the year when I am home; then I turn to an essay, a textbook, a book for children, a review, a biography, a story, a play. I read proof, I read gratuitously, I nap, I walk the dog. Jane and I work, meet, separate, work, meet… If I make my life sound like Eden, I know it isn’t; still, it is good.”
In 1989, it was discovered that Donald had contracted colon cancer. Jane writes this:
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Donald had surgeries. He went through the brutality of chemotherapy. But by 1992, the cancer had metastasized to his liver. He went through more surgeries and more chemotherapy but was told that he had a one in three chance of living five more years. I imagine Jane pleading with God (she did her best to be a Christian) to take her instead. God must have heard this plea from husbands and wives and fathers and mothers a million billion times over.
My own mother would probably not consider herself a literary scholar but she reads almost as much as anyone I know. She reads what she likes, what entertains her, what speaks to her. She doesn’t seem to care much about what’s “Important to Read.” It was mom that introduced me to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, drawn to them partly because she loves Bill Moyers, who featured them frequently in his books and television specials, and partly because, at the time, mom also had colon cancer.
It was when I was 11 or 12 and we were all pretty sure that mom was going to die. She thought so too. Dad and people from our church did the best that they could to shield my sister and I from how certain it seemed, but the heavy blankets of death hung over our house and, though we were young, we weren’t blind. Dad often made French toast for dinner while mom lay in bed in the dark bedroom, wetting her cracked lips with swabs of ice water. It was obvious even to children. It was a very dark time in our home.
Once, I saw something beautiful. I turned the corner of the kitchen and saw into the dining room where mom was sitting at the table, her head shaved, with an open book and a steaming cup of coffee and was staring out into our very green backyard. She just stared and stared. I couldn’t tell what she was looking at. After awhile, I said, “Mom? Are you okay?” She turned to me, smiled and said something I’ll never forget.
“I’m just so thankful that I get to have this cup of coffee.”
And she meant it.
As Donald Hall’s colon cancer went into remission, it was discovered in 1994 that Jane Kenyon had contracted terminal Leukemia. He recovered completely as she became sick. It was as if they were on a tragic see-saw. She had nursed him at his bedside at the hospital and at home through the nightmare of surgery and chemo. Now it was his turn to watch the person he loved most in the world as her body dwindled.
When Jane died, Donald wrote a book called “Without.” In it, Hall describes how, for their 22nd wedding anniversary, he gives her a ring…
…of pink tourmaline
with nine small diamonds around it.
She put it on her finger
and she immediately named it Please Don’t Die.
One rainy afternoon, I stood in the poetry section of Powell’s Books in Portland, crying and crying, and read “Without” cover to cover, twice in one go. That book of poems is like an axe, meant to split “un-feeling” in two. Please read the following poems carefully.
by Donald Hall
“It was reasonable
to expect.” So he wrote. The next day,
in a consultation room,
Jane’s hematologist Letha Mills sat down,
stiff, her assistant
standing with her back to the door.
“I have terrible news,” Letha told them. “The leukemia is back.
There’s nothing to do.” The four of them wept. He asked how long,
why did it happen now?
Jane asked only: “Can I die at home?”
Home that afternoon,
they threw her medicines into the trash.
Jane vomited. He wailed
while she remained dry-eyed – silent,
trying to let go. At night
he picked up the telephone to make
calls that brought
a child or a friend into the horror.
The next morning,
they worked choosing among her poems
for Otherwise, picked
hymns for her funeral, and supplied each
other words as they wrote
and revised her obituary. The day after,
with more work to do
on her book, he saw how weak she felt,
and said maybe not now; maybe
later. Jane shook her head: “Now,” she said.
“We have to finish it now.”
Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,
she said, “Wasn’t that fun?
To work together? Wasn’t that fun?”
He asked her, “What clothes
should we dress you in, when we bury you?”
“I hadn’t thought,” she said.
“I wondered about the white salwar
kameez,” he said –
her favorite Indian silk they bought
in Pondicherry a year
and a half before, which she wore for best
or prettiest afterward.
She smiled. “Yes. Excellent,” she said.
He didn’t tell her
that a year earlier, dreaming awake,
he had seen her
in the coffin in her white salwar kameez.
Still, he couldn’t stop
planning. That night he broke out with,
“When Gus dies I’ll have him cremated and scatter his ashes
on your grave!” She laughed
and her big eyes quickened and she nodded:
“It will be good
for the daffodils.” She lay pallid back
on the flowered pillow:
“Perkins, how do you think of these things?”
They talked about their
adventures – driving through England
when they first married,
and excursions to China and India.
Also they remembered
ordinary days – pond summers, working
on poems together,
walking the dog, reading Chekhov
aloud. When he praised
thousands of afternoon assignations
that carried them into
bliss and repose on this painted bed,
Jane burst into tears
and cried, “No more fucking. No more fucking!”
Incontinent three nights
before she died, Jane needed lifting
onto the commode. He wiped her and helped her back into bed.
At five he fed the dog
and returned to find her across the room,
sitting in a straight chair.
When she couldn’t stand, how could she walk?
He feared she would fall
and called for an ambulance to the hospital,
but when he told Jane,
her mouth twisted down and tears started.
“Do we have to?” He canceled.
Jane said, “Perkins, be with me when I die.”
“Dying is simple,” she said.
“What’s worst is… the separation.”
When she no longer spoke,
they lay along together, touching,
and she fixed on him
her beautiful enormous round brown eyes,
and passionate with love and dread.
One by one they came,
the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye
to this friend of the heart.
At first she said their names, wept, and touched;
then she smiled; then
turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day
she stared silent goodbyes
with her hands curled and her eye stuck open.
Leaving his place beside her,
where her eyes stared, he told her,
“I’ll put these letters
in the box.” She had not spoken
for three hours, and now Jane said
her last words: “O.K.”
At eight that night,
her eyes open as they stayed
until she died, brain-stem breathing
started, he bent to kiss
her pale cool lips again, and felt them
one last time gather
and purse and peck to kiss him back.
In the last hours, she kept
her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched
at cheek level, like
the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink.
Sometimes her right fist flicked
or spasmed toward her face. For twelve hours
until she died, he kept
scratching Jane Kenyon’s big bony nose.
A sharp, almost sweet
smell began to rise from her open mouth.
He watched her chest go still.
With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes.
LETTER WITH NO ADDRESS
by Donald Hall
Your daffodils rose up
and collapsed in their yellow
bodies on the hillside
garden above the bricks
you laid out in sand, squatting
with pants pegged and face
masked like a beekeeper’s
against the black flies.
Buttercups circle the planks
of the old wellhead
this May while your silken
gardener’s body withers or moulds
in the Proctor graveyard.
I drive and talk to you crying
and come back to this house
to talk to your photographs.
At five A.M., when I walk outside,
mist lies thick on hayfields.
By eight the air is clear,
cool, sunny with the pale yellow
light of mid-May. Kearsarge
rises huge and distinct,
each birch and balsam visible.
To the west the waters
of Eagle Pond waver
and flash through poplars just
Always the weather,
writing its book of the world,
returns you to me. Ordinary days were best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.
Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.
Ah Donald. You’ve such a beautiful soul! Through sheer bravery he has stayed within the world. He has continued to write and, in my opinion, his poems are getting even better. He likes writing about baseball and has a pretty good collection called “The 13th Inning.” He also wrote a memoir about his experiences called, “The Best and Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.”
While touring the country to promote “Without,” he said “People kept saying, ‘It must be painful for you.’ But you know, some people cannot talk about these things, some people can’t stop.” Since Jane died, he gets incredible volumes of letters from fans of Jane’s work and from cancer survivors or those who have lost loved ones, in which they pour out their secret hearts whole. “I’m not bothered by that role,” he says. “If I can comfort and be comforted, that’s a good thing.”
My mother survived two rounds of surgery and chemotherapy and her colon cancer went into remission. But, many years later, while on tour in Chicago, I stood on the high back deck of our friend Drew’s beautiful graystone building and gazed at the Sears Tower as my mom tearfully told me that her doctors had discovered that she had breast cancer. “I’m so, so sorry Nathan,” she said. The dark tower looked so alone in its heights.
That day, we drove from Chicago to New Orleans in a single go. We split the whole country in two, right down the middle, and I cried quietly in the back of the van amongst the bags and instruments. When we arrived at four in the morning, the humid taverns were still packed. People danced on the bar and sang in the sweltering neon light. I felt lost, as though I was eleven-years-old again.
But guess what? Mom beat THAT cancer too! In fact, the more that I think of it, my quiet, shy, generous and contemplative mother may very well be the toughest woman I have ever known. I called her yesterday and she was getting excited for their first trip to continental Europe. My mom and dad are going to see nine different countries across the sea. “Thankful” doesn’t even come close.
Notes From the Other Side
by Jane Kenyon
I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.
Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,
there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing
of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.
The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,
and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
by Jane Kenyon
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years….
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me….
I am food on the prisoner’s plate….
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills….
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden….
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge….
I am the heart contracted by joy….
the longest hair, white
before the rest….
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow….
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit….
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name….